Returning Thanks

cleansing-of-the-ten-lepers

A sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 9, 2016.  The lectionary readings are 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, and Luke 17:11-19.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Tomorrow may be Columbus Day in the United States, but in Canada, it’s Thanksgiving Day, complete with turkey, a Canadian football double-header, and a few parades.  Like in this country, it’s a day rooted in giving thanks for a good harvest, and in a post-agricultural culture, it’s used to give thanks for all God’s blessings, however one might have experienced them.  Our scriptures allow us to do Thanksgiving a little early, so perhaps we can join our voices with those to the north.

Way back in the 4th century, Ambrose of Milan said “No duty is so urgent as that of returning thanks.” I’ve always loved that phrase: “returning thanks.” It almost suggests that thanks comes from somewhere else, that it moves through us or visits us for a little while, and so we should be careful with it, hold it gently, and then, when it’s time, let it go back to the its source.

In reality, we don’t always return thanks. It’s more like we misplace it or forget about it. Or we squander it and pretend it wasn’t a gift, but rather, something we deserved and earned and won. We don’t always consider that the thanks we get, the thanks for which we are grateful, the thanks we return (or don’t return) is a blessing—it is pure gift.

In our first reading, it takes Naaman a while to return thanks, to return to give thanks, or to understand where his blessing has come from.  Naaman might be powerful and successful, but he also has leprosy. Lepers were called “unclean,” and the belief was that they were not only physically unclean (and people assumed that’s how they got the skin disease in the first place) but they were also thought to be spiritually unclean, as though they were being punished by God for some reason.

We can understand something of what the culture of fear and suspicion around leprosy might have been like, if we remember the early 1980’s when the outbreak of AIDS meant also an epidemic of fear and ignorance. Some of you may remember what it was like in the early 20th century around polio, as well.

Though Naaman must have been petrified at his own leprosy, he doesn’t show it.  He’s a military man, after all. No tears, no whining.  But he does look for healing. Naaman hears about the prophet and healer Elisha (the heir to the prophet Elijah). And so, Naaman gets to the opening of Elisha’s cave, and Elisha sends a servant out to talk to him. The servant says, “Here’s what you need to do: Elisha says for you to go and wash in the River Jordan seven times. That should do the trick. You’ll be fine.”

Well! This great military commander Naaman is insulted. Did he travel all the way to Israel only to be told by a servant go and wash in the river? Does he not even get to see this supposedly great prophet?

Naaman is angry, he criticizes Elisha. He makes fun of Israel and its rivers, and on and on he goes, in an absolute rage. Had he continued to mouth off, had he continued to try to fit things into his own way of seeing, he would have completely missed the opportunity before him. He would have missed the presence of God, and the healing of God. Just before they leave Israel altogether, one of Naaman’s servants pulls him aside and begins to talk a little sense into him.

It’s as though this servant understands the nature of grace, the nature of blessing—that when a blessing comes from God (whether it’s in the form of healing or some other blessing), it comes lightly, and so it should be grasped and grabbed, but received and allowed room. Naaman eventually goes down to the water, he bathes seven times, and he is healed. Not only is he healed of the leprosy, but it also sounds like he might have been healed from a little of his arrogance and pride. And then Naaman returns to Elisha and makes a big statement. It’s a statement of faith, but also a returning of thanks: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel. Your God is God.”

In our Gospel, there is healing, as well. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and is approached by not one, but ten lepers. They greet him with words that will echo on Palm Sunday, recognizing his power and his ability to forgive and cleanse: “Jesus, master, have mercy on us.” Their words are a desperate cry for help, they’re from the heart, and they seem to get his attention.
With these 10 lepers, Jesus does an astounding thing. He responds to them as though they’ve already been healed—he doesn’t send them to bathe in special waters, he doesn’t spit into the dirt and make a potion out of it for their healing—instead, he effects the healing in them even as they ask for it. Next, he follows the Jewish custom of encouraging them to go and show themselves to the Temple priests.

Jesus heals the disease, but he knows that it will take a little more for the fear and suspicion around the disease to heal, as well. It’s a little like when one of us has been healed, has gotten better, has been restored to health, and yet friends and family treat us as though we’re still fragile. Jesus knows that for the lepers to be received back into their families and villages, they needed the official approval of the Temple priest, the sort of cultural equivalent of a “clean bill of health.” And so the ten former lepers follow Jesus’ instructions and they go to the temple. All, except for one.

One comes back, and returns thanks. The one, cured leper happens to be the Samaritan, the foreigner, the half-breed, the one despised by both Jews and the Gentiles. This cured leper has now been doubly cured. Not only is he cured of a disease, but he’s healed from the prejudice and racism he’s experienced, from all the cultural divides that have been heaped on him as an outsider.  This Samaritan (perhaps because he’s so often been among the left out and thrown-out) understands the giftedness of  blessing, the nature of a grace, the nature of thanks— as something that visits us, and gains life when it is shared and returned.  Christ was born on the “outside,” and always brings those who are left out, in.

Today’s Gospel has been interpreted in various ways through the life of the Church. Among the disciples and the very early church there were concerns about those who were newcomers to the faith, especially whether non-Jews who became Christians were as faithful as the Jewish followers of Jesus. Stories like the one about the healing of the ten lepers reminded the early church of their own minority status and that the price of admission into the Church of Jesus Christ is gratitude.

Another interpretation of the story of the one leper who returns to give thanks has to do with Jesus’s own emphasis on welcoming the foreigner. In this, there’s the reminder that we should do what we can to welcome the stranger, the one who doesn’t exactly fit in, the one who is new.   Our mission house, the first building at Holy Trinity, was named for St. Christopher the patron saint of travelers.  To a community of immigrants, that meant welcome and hospitality.

And then, given that we are approaching stewardship season, I should include the not so-subtle point that some have seen in this story the image of the tithe—the biblical teaching that we should aim to return one-tenth of our possessions, our income, to God. Recall that there were ten lepers. One comes back to Jesus, and his coming back was accompanied with joy and thanksgiving. The story reminds us that all God gives us is a blessing, but there is particular joy when we return at least a tenth out of gratitude.

However we might hear the Gospel speaking to us, the scriptures work together today to help us think about the grace God has given us, and how we might begin to return that grace—to God, and to other people.

In the Collect of the Day we have prayed that God’s grace might always precede and follow us, making us continually given to good works. It’s important to notice the order of the words in that prayer.  It’s not our works that produce the grace. It’s not our works that even provide the setting or space for grace. But it is grace itself—God’s free and unmerited gift— that allows us to do good and faithful work. Grace that comes before, during, and after. But it is always and everywhere God’s grace, not our own. And so the Spirit helps us to live lightly in a state of grace, and return it.

With those in today’s scriptures, can pray for God’s healing of disease and ailment. We can pray for God’s healing of creation, where it is broken or wasted or in trouble. We pray for God’s healing of racial and ethnic and cultural divides. But let us also pray for God’s Spirit to help us return thanks and always live lightly with grateful hearts.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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